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Fighting for Their Parish

The congregation at Mater Dolorosa has deep faith in its cause--and a good lawyer.

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Thursday, April 12, 2012

On April 1, hundreds of people gathered at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in Adams for Palm Sunday mass. But the faithful at St. Stan's weren't just celebrating the beginning of Holy Week; they were also celebrating the reopening of their church, which had been closed in 2009 by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield as part of a larger church closing and consolidation plan developed to address the waning numbers of parishioners and priests and the financial pressures on the church.

Under that plan, St. Stan's was to merge with another church in the city, creating a new parish called Pope John Paul the Great. Dismayed at the thought of losing their 108-year-old church, St. Stan parishioners filed an appeal, which eventually made its way to the Vatican. More dramatically, they also began a round-the-clock vigil at the church, with members ultimately occupying the building for more than three years.

In February, the vigil holders received welcome news: the Apostolic Signatura—the Vatican's highest court—ruled that while the diocese could, indeed, merge the two Adams parishes, it nonetheless needed to retain St. Stan's for religious purposes. Officially the church will serve as a chapel or mission of Pope John Paul the Great; one Mass will be celebrated at St. Stan's each Sunday morning, and weddings, baptisms and funerals can be held there.

Among the crowd celebrating St. Stan's first mass in more than three years was a busload of kindred spirits from Holyoke's Mater Dolorosa parish. Called the Friends of Mater Dolorosa, the Holyoke group also has been fighting to keep open its church, which the diocese slated for closure in 2011. To the Mater Dolorosa parishioners, who've been holding their own vigil at their church since last summer, the victory at St. Stan's is a hopeful sign.

"It shows you that persistence pays off, doesn't it?" said Victor Anop, a member of the group. "It shows that even though it appears it is the darkest hour ... there is hope."

But according to diocese spokesman Mark Dupont, the reopening of St. Stan's has no bearing on the Holyoke matter. In the Adams case, the decision had been made based on demographics; in the case of Mater Dolorosa, Dupont said, there were multiple reasons, including the church's mounting debt, a drop in attendance, and structural concerns about the 110-year-old building's steeple.

The Holyoke vigil, Dupont said, amounts to a "publicity stunt"—one that's creating deep divisions within the local Catholic community.

*

Mater Dolorosa—Our Mother of Sorrows—was built at the turn of the last century, and, like many Catholic churches of its time, had a distinct ethnic culture. Like St. Stanislaus Kostka, Mater Dolorosa was a Polish church; elsewhere around the Valley other parishes were built and populated by various immigrant groups—French, Italian, Portuguese—who wanted churches where masses were held in their native languages and their cultural traditions incorporated into the life of the parish.

Victor Anop's family has been worshiping at Mater Dolorosa for generations. "My grandparents were probably part of the crew that dug the foundation," he told the Advocate. Today, Anop serves as the Friends of Mater Dolorosa's lawyer, working on its appeals to the Vatican and also representing the group in a legal battle with the diocese over the vigil.

Mater Dolorosa is one of a number of parishes to fight the diocese's closure decisions. Those efforts have had varying degrees of success. Parishioners at Indian Orchard's Immaculate Conception won an appeal on the local level, when Bishop Timothy McDonnell reversed his decision to close that church. In the case of two Chicopee parishes, St. Patrick's and St. George, the Vatican ruled, as it did on the St. Stan's appeal, that while the diocese had the right to dissolve the parishes, it needed to keep the churches open for religious purposes. A third Chicopee parish, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, lost its appeal, as did Springfield's Our Lady of Hope. (Our Lady of Hope is now at the center of another legal battle, as the diocese is fighting in federal court a move by Springfield city officials to designate the church building a historic district,)

Other parishes are awaiting final word from the Vatican, including Mater Dolorosa. While the Holyoke parish lost its first appeal before the Vatican's Congregation for Clergy, which upheld the diocese's decision to close the church, the group has appealed that ruling to the Apostolic Signatura. It's unclear when a final decision can be expected.

While they await word from the Vatican, the Mater Dolorosa parishioners have been engaged in a second, and decidedly more antagonistic, legal fight with the diocese. Last fall, Bishop Timothy McDonnell filed suit in Hampden Superior Court contending that the vigil holders were trespassing on diocesan property and seeking to have them evicted. The diocese, arguing that the church's steeple was in poor structural shape and posed a safety risk, sought a preliminary injunction from the court to force the vigil holders to leave the church immediately so repairs could be made. Judge C. Jeffrey Kinder denied the request for an injunction.

Then, in February, Judge Cornelius J. Moriarty II dismissed the suit, saying that the dispute was an internal church matter and that the court lacked jurisdiction. The judge also dismissed three counterclaims filed by church members accusing the diocese of violating their civil rights and of committing fraud by refusing to share financial information with them. The diocese is challenging Moriarty's decision in the appeals court in Boston.

"The courts seem, unfortunately, somewhat reluctant to enforce Massachusetts law," Dupont, the diocese spokesman, told the Advocate.

"We believe the court just disregarded standing precedent in this matter. It's understandable. It's hard when you've got a courtroom full of very nice, committed people to say, 'We're gong to throw you out,'" Dupont continued. "But we rely on the courts to uphold the law."

*

The structural integrity of the church's steeple has been a matter of great dispute between the diocese and the Friends of Mater Dolorosa. The diocese had the structure examined by two engineering firms, both of which raised concerns about safety at the building. In a September, 2011 letter to the diocese's attorney, one of the firms, Barry Engineers and Constructors Inc. of Pittsfield, wrote: "It is our professional opinion that portions of the steeple structure have decayed due to age, moisture and neglect and that portions could be subject to failure due to forces from wind and/or seismic forces."

In response, the Friends of Mater Dolorosa brought in a third engineer, Neal Mitchell of Northbridge, to review the diocese's two reports. In a letter to Anop outlining his findings, Mitchell questioned the validity of those reports, writing: "My conclusion is that this steeple will not fail as a result of wind loads. ... I believe that proper cleaning of the bird droppings, re-pointing the bricks and providing mending plates to some of the main timbers will bring this bell tower and steeple back to its original condition and strength. These activities should be considered as normal maintenance and they represent only minor costs."

Dupont said the diocese has additional concerns about the safety of the vigil holders, who are occupying a building in what Dupont called a "cusp" neighborhood at all hours of the day and night. Last year, Dupont said, the diocese decided to test security at the church by sending a young man to knock on its door in the early morning hours. The two elderly women on duty that shift opened the door to him, according to Dupont—prompting the diocese to hire a security company to make regular checks on the building.

"We're not interested in creating hardship for [the vigil holders]," Dupont said. The diocese could drain the church's pipes and shut off the water and heat there, he said, but instead has opted to maintain low-level heat and running water so the people occupying it can use the bathrooms. ("They're not doing it for us," scoffed Anop, who said the diocese has kept the heat on to keep the building from falling into disrepair.)

While the Friends of Mater Dolorosa might believe that their vigil will help their case before the Vatican, Dupont said, he believes that the matter will turn on the numerous factors that prompted church officials to decide to close the church. A "pew count" conducted by the diocese showed attendance at Mater Dolorosa dropping steadily over the years, from 892 in 2005 to 715 in 2008, Dupont noted. In addition, he said, the parish was in heavy debt to the diocese. In a July 2010 parish bulletin, Mater Dolorosa's pastor, Father Alex Cymerman, wrote that Mater Dolorosa owed the diocese $600,000. ("Think about that when you get upset that we have to link parishes!" Cymerman wrote.)

Anop questions numbers used by the diocese in deciding to shut Mater Dolorosa and merge the parish into the existing Holy Cross church. In the same "pew count" cited by Dupont, Anop pointed to a decline in attendance at Holy Cross as well, from 570 in 2005 to 528 in 2008—187 fewer people than the number counted that year at Mater Dolorosa. Anop also accuses church officials of concealing important financial information from parishioners—parishioners who, like their parents and grandparents before them, poured significant amounts of money into their parish, only to see it taken away.

*

The Springfield Diocese has closed and merged dozens of parishes in recent years, as it struggles with financial crises, the loss of members and the fallout of the priest abuse scandal. Invariably, those decisions meet with emotionally charged responses from parishioners.

But the situation at Mater Dolorosa stands out as especially contentious. When McDonnell came to the church to celebrate its final mass before its closure last June, he was greeted by a crowd of protesters, as well as Holyoke police officers who'd been sent to keep an eye on things. Some in the crowd reportedly tried to block McDonnell from entering the church, and one man interrupted the mass to call the bishop a "liar."

When the Mass ended, a number of parishioners simply stayed in the church, beginning the vigil that has now lasted more than nine months. A few weeks after the vigil began, members of the group picketed outside of the Springfield residence of the bishop, who refused to meet with them.

The vigil group, Anop said, counts about 150 members, who have occupied the church in round-the-clock shifts, some of them passing the time by saying the rosary. To stay warm on cold days and nights, they've brought in space heaters. On Friday evenings, the group holds services led by lay Eucharistic ministers and lectors, including Anop's wife, Shirley. Three hundred and fifty people attended Christmas services at the church, according to Anop.

Some of the Friends of Mater Dolorosa also go to other parishes for Sunday mass or holiday services, according to Anop. "We've become roaming Catholics," he said. About 40 percent of the group's members, he added, have stopped going to church at all, "they're so disgusted."

The decision to close Mater Dolorosa was a political one, Anop maintains. "It was lack of leadership from the pastor, to start with," he said, referring to Cymerman, now the pastor at Our Lady of the Cross, the new parish created by merging Mater Dolorosa and Holy Cross. "Our pastor was wimpy and gave up."

And now, he continued, the Friends of Mater Dolorosa are paying the price for standing up for their parish. Anop said he's asked the diocese's lawyers to settle the dispute amicably—the group, he said, just wants the keys to the church, and a priest to say mass once a week—but have been rebuffed. Last December, a few days before Christmas, the diocese removed from Mater Dolorosa's Nativity scene statues of Jesus, Mary and Joseph; in a press release, the Friends of Mater Dolorosa accused church officials of "kidnapping" the Holy Family. The diocese maintained that the statues rightfully belong to the newly created Our Lady of the Cross.

"The diocese has now lost all moral compass," Anop recently told the Advocate. "The whole thing is a mess."

*

On that last point, at least, the diocese's Dupont appears to be in agreement.

The decision to close some churches was very difficult, he said, but necessary, given the financial pressures the diocese faces. "We're dealing with the same realities businesses and other institutions in Western Massachusetts are dealing with," Dupont said.

He also defended the process by which the diocese's Pastoral Planning Committee selected which churches would close. The committee held a series of public meetings, soliciting input from parishioners. "This wasn't the bishop sitting in his office choosing winners and losers," Dupont said. "We didn't do this behind closed doors."

In the end, he continued, the committee concluded that "we need to be able to place our resources where our Catholic community lives"—namely, the suburbs, where many people who used to attend urban churches have now moved, leaving their former parishes struggling with mounting debt and emptying pews.

"We need to drive this car—this faith car, if you will—looking at the road ahead," Dupont said, "not steering into the rear view mirror."

Merging parishes in urban areas can make those parishes stronger, Dupont said. He offered by way of example Pittsfield, which saw half its Catholic churches closed several years ago. The resulting combined parishes, he said, "are much more vibrant, active communities"; no longer struggling to pay their bills, they've been able to put their resources to community programs such as soup kitchens.

The diocese appreciate the Friends of Mater Dolorosa's devotion to their long-time parish, Dupont said: "We know that this process is inherently painful. Their lives centered there." Efforts have been made to make former Mater Dolorosa parishioners feel welcomed at Our Lady of the Cross, he continued, such as offering a Polish-language mass every week.

"We tried to create a situation where they could bring as much of their cultural identity and the way they worshiped to the new [parish]," said Dupont, who maintains that the "vast majority" of former Mater Dolorosa parishioners now come to Our Lady of the Cross.

"Many have accepted that invitation, but a handful have not," Dupont said. "They're holding out." And that, he said, threatens the future of the parish community that's developing at Our Lady of the Cross. "This division that's been created by Victor Anop and their group could ultimately tear this apart. If they don't come together [at the new parish], the very thing they're trying to protect very well may be lost."

Its trespass lawsuit notwithstanding, Dupont said the diocese doesn't want to forcibly remove the Friends of Mater Dolorosa from the church. "At the end of the day, we'd like to see them walk out of there on their own, join their brothers and sisters at the new parish, and see how the Vatican appeal works out," he said.

But that doesn't seem likely. As Anop wrote in a press release after the reopening of St. Stanislaus Kostka: "[W]e the parishioners of Mater Dolorosa continue our 24/7 Prayer Vigil with more hope, vigor and determination as a result of the actions of the people of St. Stan's in re-establishing Masses in the church of their heritage, and look forward to the reopening of Mater Dolorosa."

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